One. BANG! Willow crumples on to the flagstones. I can see her arm laid about above her head, the grey linen sleeve slowly dyeing red with blood. She decided not to jump. I’m not surprised. She was always skittish, hesitant; she didn’t have what it takes. Not like me.
Two. No bang, instead a strange, visceral scream; involuntary. Aspen jumped. Again, I could have predicted this. She was Oak’s deputy and she’d done most of the legwork for our plan; mapping routes, figuring out where we could tunnel, where we could climb and where we could run. It was Aspen who constantly reminded us that this was the likely outcome of the plan.
“It might work,” she said, leaning over the small table where we were all crowded on top of each other, sipping weak coffee. “We could go down in history as the liberators of our people, but it’s not likely.”
Her face hardened ferociously. “More likely than not, we’ll spend a week in prison while the country takes bets on which of us will be brave enough to leap from the peak and which of us won’t.”
Willow whimpered when Aspen said it.
Three. BANG. Linden didn’t jump. I am surprised now. He had seemed so ardent when we were trekking through the Molling Pass, knee deep in snow. “I’ll never let them waste lead on me.”
But he did. Maybe he didn’t decide in time. You only had one second. I had been practicing. I could take three rapid breaths in one second. One to steel myself for what I was about to do, one to fuel my muscles to jump, one to make sure I was gone before they fired.
Four. No bang. Elm had jumped. All the bookies knew she would. Besides Oak, she was the one among us most favored to leap. Our faces spread over the centerfold of the newspaper in two even rows; five on top, five on the bottom. Our names, ages, hometowns, what we were arrested with; all information used by gamblers to inform their guesses about our fate.
Elm’s scream was deep, distorting as she fell further.
I listen for as long as I can, but then,
Five. No bang. Oak. Our leader. The shame if he hadn’t jumped would have been unbearable for his family. People who lead rebellions but don’t jump are never spoken of, their families considered cursed. They're pushed to the edges of their villages and forced to live off of the pity of old women.
I know Aspen and Oak told us again and again that we were likely to get caught and that we weren’t likely to succeed, but Oak assured us that it was the duty of our people to try to overthrow the Helvarians; that we must ensure they never sleep peacefully for fear we might come in the night and slit their throats. We were a morality tale Helvarian mothers told their children to get them to behave: Listen to your mother for the Dendronians will come for you in the night. Put that down now or I’ll send you to the Dendronians. "And", Oak said, "Maybe this time it will work."
I don’t hear Oak hit the bottom. You can never hear them hit the bottom, it’s too far away. At some point the scream just fades. That’s how the myth started among my people that revolutionaries who stay true fly; that they leap from the peak and fly away into glory.
A memory hits me hard, so strange for this to come to me now. I was six or seven, playing in the woods with my friend, Juniper.
“They don’t really fly you know. The bottom is just too far away for us to hear them hit.” He was sneering at me.
“That’s not true! They do fly. My daddy flew!”
“Well my uncle met somebody on the clean up crew. He said they rappel down the side of the peak and remove stuff from the bodies like gold teeth, valuable hair, that kind of thing.”
“You’re a liar!” I yelled, throwing a pebble at him.
“Then how come no one ever sees them fly away into glory? Wouldn’t we see them flying up into the air?”
I ran to my mother in hysterics.
“You told me daddy flew! You said he was a hero! Juniper told me they just smash on the rocks.”
I wept so hard I couldn’t breathe.
“Don’t listen to Juniper, my sweet. He’s a silly boy. Come here.”
She pulled me to her lap and brought my head to her chest. She rubbed her hand up and down my back before stopping abruptly, patting my shoulder blades, making a confused face. She pulled my tunic back and peeked down the collar.
“What are these?” She patted the space on my back between my arms once again.
I tried to turn my face around, this way and that, to look at my own back.
“What mom? What is it?” I started to frantically whack beneath my neck.
“Wing buds. I can feel them here. If the time comes and you’re very brave, your wings will pop out of here and you’ll fly right to your daddy.”
“Do you mean it, mommy?”
Later on I realized, with a laugh, that she was just touching my shoulder blades, nothing more. Sometimes, when we were teenagers, my friends and I would debate whether we’d teach our children about the wings or whether we’d be cool and skeptical forever. What hung in the air like a toxic cloud in those conversations was whether we’d ever get to have children. Would we survive the Helvarians coming to the village every spring to decide who would come with them to work as ‘servants’ (slaves)? Would they find us hidden in old logs and briar bushes, where hopeful parents would sometimes hide their children from the Helvarians, usually in vain? Would we die in a rebellion? Or would we survive in place until we were twenty-five, just to watch the Helvarians come for our friends, children, grandchildren, year after year?
The blood flowing from Aspen and Linden is making its way down the line now. It will be at my feet soon.
Six. BANG. Ash. She didn’t jump. What had the bookies bet on her? My time is coming so soon. What will I think about when I plunge to the ground? Maybe I’ll imagine my mother, or meeting my father. I will be happy if the last thing I see is my father’s face smiling at me. I’m so proud of you.
But now I’m imagining my first, and only, kiss. Oh no, I hope the last thing I remember isn’t Mahogany.
Damnit, I can’t remember the lineup now, who’s next?
Seven. No bang, heaving scream. Who was seven? I went through the lineup in my head a thousand times, easily, in the last few days. Aspen, Willow, Elm, Linden... no wait, it was Willow, Aspen, Linden, or was Elm next. Oak was number five. How am I forgetting? I have so little time left to remember.
Eight. BANG. I can see his torso hit the ground in my peripheral vision; Alder. He only joined us because he knew that if the Helvarian guards came for him, and they probably would, they would torture him. Better to hedge his bets with us; no one believed he would jump when the time came. I wonder why people can’t bring themselves to jump? They know they are going to die. There’s no hope either way, why not die with pride? But it’s as though some animal part of us hopes that, if we choose to stay put, our fate may be different than the fates of all our forebears, who either soared into oblivion over the peak, or else were shot.
If we move our heads they’ll shoot us, so I’m limited to moving my eyes. This is something I’ve been practicing the past week, stretching my eyes as far as I can while my head stays still; I used the reflection off of a dank puddle in the prison floor to do it. I can see, now, stretching my eyes as far left as possible, the steam rising off of Alder’s blood. Seeing the blood reminds me that seven was Spruce. All I can remember of Spruce is her eyes; grey green.
Nine. I can feel Cedar jumping; catch his dirt-covered feet leaving the ground. The blood is pumping so hard in my ears that I can’t hear his screaming. Cedar was handsome; big and tall and dark. Sometimes at night, when we were sharing some of the four blankets we had between the ten of us, I’d curl up next to Cedar and imagine I wasn’t on my way to Allhaven to try to overthrow the Helvarian government; assassinate the Magistrate, shoot the guards and kidnap the children of the Senators until they met our demands. I’d imagine that we were two lovers laying in bed together, sleeping in after a long night, legs entwined, perfectly at peace.
Ten. It comes so quickly for me I almost miss my chance. The old priest that the Helvarians had sent in to try to get us to confess and recant told us the ten seconds would feel like an eternity; something about the brain drawing out time, like in dreams. Fractal divisions. Distortion of senses. The psychology of it. He told us it would be agony, that we’d defecate ourselves or collapse weeping and disgrace ourselves, but we knew that nothing is more disgraceful for a Dendronian than capitulation. And so we all remained silent until he sprinkled us with driftwood ash and wished us a pleasant journey into the underworld. Now ten seconds felt impossibly fast, thrice as fast as I’d been counting all week.
I take the biggest breath I can muster. My brain sends the signal to my feet to jump; a burst of power from my heels to the balls of my feet, up to my knees. My thighs plunge down for leverage and the momentum is back down to the balls of my feet again, pushing back up, and off I fly.
I see my bare toes arched above me in the sky as I fall, the grey linen uniform madly flapping in the wind. Everything is a green-blue blur. I’m trying to summon my father. I want to see his face before I hit the rocks below.
“Cypress,” he says, smiling into my face. “I’m so proud of you.”
And at that moment I spread out my arms, as if to embrace him, and the wings that I’d always known deep down, even in the height of my cynicism, were there, burst forth, ripping open the linen cloth. They catch a draft of air and carry me off into the golden horizon.
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I didn't read prompt. The lack of plot was too convoluted for me up to #3. I can only say this because I have loved your writing. Thank you.
This gave me SERIOUS Hunger Games vibes. Well done!